The Lid Comes Off
The Lid Comes Off
It is not uncommon to see licensed and independent films on the same program these days.
—"The Answer Man," Moving Picture World, 25 October 1913, p. 375
Two series of events in 1912 marked the beginning of a realignment of the film industry comparable to that of 1909 in terms of the changes it brought to the way motion pictures were made and seen. The first was the series of court decisions and legal actions that signaled the beginning of the end of the Motion Picture Patents Company. The second was the breakup of both licensed and independent combinations, owing in large part to the fact that new methods of distribution were required if feature films were to be profitable.
The Latham loop patent was overthrown in Patents Company v. IMP in February 1912 when Judge Learned Hand held that the patents claim did not cover cameras; this opinion was upheld by the U.S. Circuit Court in August of that year. Although it had not been mentioned in the lawsuit, Judge Learned Hand volunteered his opinion that the patent would be equally invalid if applied to the projection machine, because it had been anticipated by Armat and Jenkins and others. Even then, the Patents Company continued to bring suits against the independents on the basis of the Edison reissue patents as late as mid 1914, but it was far too late to save the power of the Trust. During 1912 William Fox's Greater New York Film Exchange brought suit against the Patents Company, charging restraint of trade. The Fox lawsuit was not the deciding one on this issue, inasmuch as the complaint lost, was appealed, and was finally settled out of court. But it was the trigger for the United States government's suit against the Patents Company under the Sherman Antitrust Act, filed on 16 August 1912. The government's position in the petition was that "On or about April 1910, defendants set out to monopolize the business of all the rental exchanges in the United States, their purpose being to drive out of business all persons so engaged and to absorb to themselves the profits theretofore made there-in." The government went to trial in January 1913 and the lawsuit continued well into 1914. The lower court's decision against the Trust was handed down in October 1915, and the Patents Company was ordered dissolved not long thereafter.1
General Film was already in difficulty in the marketplace. In August 1912 the Motion Picture Exhibitors' League of America convention at the Hotel La Salle in Chicago passed a resolution calling for legal action to end the "extortion" of the two-dollar fee from licensed exhibitors and to prevent the Patents Company from interfering with licensed exhibitors who used independent feature films. The court
decisions of that year made these steps obvious. The exhibitors further resolved that General Film should be asked to explain why prices on the special feature releases varied from fifteen dollars in Detroit to seventy-five dollars in San Francisco.2
General Film held on through 1915 and presumably made the final payments that year on the exchanges that were bought in 1910. However, there were already signs of defection in 1913. In the struggle to find ways to distribute feature films, some frustrated licensed producers began to make separate agreements with other companies. General Film's Feature Film Service was not sufficient for them, not when they could see the big profits being made by independents who were producing and importing features, then selling or leasing them on the states rights plan. At the same time, the Patents Company producers did not cease producing the shorter films for the regular General Film program. The previous chapter has shown that the process of marketing big features was giving rise to a new distribution system, which would eventually swallow up the old film exchanges.
When Pathé ran into difficulty distributing its European features in the important American market because the General Film system limited the number of features it could issue and the profits it could make, the French producer set up the Eclectic Company as an independent importing firm. In April 1913, the newly founded Eclectic imported Pathé's gigantic twelve-reel Les MisÉrables, directed by Albert Capellani. Pathé's ownership of this company was not openly acknowledged in the American trade journals until the following year, when Eclectic began domestic production at the Pathé plant and with Pathé staff, for the celebrated serial The Perils of Pauline. By that time, Pathé-Eclectic had set up its own system of exchanges, as the newer feature production companies were doing.3
In the spring of 1913, General Film charged Kalem with violating their agreement on the exclusive rights to the William J. Burns film Exposing the Land Swindlers. According to the request for an injunction restraining both the Kalem and Kinetograph companies from handling this film, "after leasing the exclusive rights to the picture in question, the Kalem Company violated its contract by leasing a number of films to the Kinetograph Company." In other words, General Film found itself distributing the film in competition with a rival distributor, the Kinetograph Company. The strange aspect of this affair is that Kinetograph was a company established by General Film executives. It is not clear from the published records why they set up such a company, but Kinetograph may have been an attempt either to establish a new distribution system for features or, somewhat underhandedly, to avoid the charges of monopoly that were then being pressed by the government. Frank Dyer replaced Kennedy as president of General Film, and Kennedy, together with Percy Waters, general manager, resigned from General Film in December 1912 and formed the Kinetograph Company. Kinetograph then got a license from the Patents Company to conduct exchanges. On 9 February 1913, Kinetograph announced distribution of the full Patents Company program. The Kinetograph Company established several branch offices, but it could not compete, so it was said later, with the system already set up by General Film, which then absorbed it. In February 1914, Kennedy and Waters reassumed their positions at General Film. When Kennedy was questioned about Kinetograph during the government suit against the Patents Company, he refused to discuss it.4
The Biograph Company had contributed little or nothing to General Film's efforts to incorporate multireel films into the distribution system through the Special Service, although Kennedy was still at the head of Biograph while acting as organizer and president of General Film. In June 1913 Biograph announced a contract with theatrical magnates Klaw and Erlanger and with Al H. Woods, who had formed the Protective Amusement Company that spring to produce two big features a week from the play productions owned by these impresarios. The films were intended to be shown at advanced ticket prices in big theaters, including the chain owned by the producers, and Marcus Loew's fifty theaters were said to be already booked for the service. The contract was reported to be a big shock to director D. W. Griffith when he returned from the winter filming in California. He had not been consulted about the arrangement, and he found himself expected to supervise the production of the Klaw and Erlanger features, while his wish to make his own feature films had been rejected. That October he left the company.5
The release of the Klaw and Erlanger productions was delayed long beyond the announced date. The first one, The Fatal Wedding, was premiered at the Palace Theatre on Broadway in New York on 19 January 1914. (Klaw and Erlanger did release an imported film while they were waiting to get out the Biograph productions; this was the four-reel German film The Life of Richard Wagner.) Actually, quite a number of the Klaw and Erlanger films were produced in 1913, but they were not released until well into 1914. The cast lists included the names of people who left Biograph with Griffith in October or at least before the year was out. Klaw and Erlanger's plans were not fulfilled and their agreement with Biograph came to an end in 1914, leaving Biograph with ownership of the features. According to Kemp Niver's account, Klaw and Erlanger persisted in believing that the prestige of their theatrical
productions would justify higher admission prices than for other features, but audiences were not ready to pay them.
It may have been the Klaw and Erlanger attempt to market the films at too high a price that delayed their general release. In any event, these films and the delayed release of Griffith's Judith of Bethulia in 1914 gave Biograph a belated entry into the feature-film market. Judith of Bethulia, a historical spectacle film, was very successful and remained in distribution for at least two years. In September 1914, Biograph began to issue a two-reel film on a regular basis, every Tuesday, in addition to their one-reel and split-reel productions. Including the delayed release of the Klaw and Erlanger films, 18 percent of their production was longer than one reel in 1914. The Biograph staff grew larger. The annual trip to California at the end of that year included 125 people, seven of them directors. Biograph continued to increase the production of features in the next couple of years, but they lagged much behind other companies in following the trend.6
The independents were breaking up over the same question of feature-film distribution. As in the case of the licensed companies, it was a matter of economics. In April 1912, for example, the New York Motion Picture Company explained a new policy whereby their two-reel "101" Bisons were being sold by the states-rights method. When features were distributed in the normal way, reported the producers of the Bisons, the Sales Company "found it impossible to obtain adequate returns. … They were unable to obtain more than fourteen orders from the exchanges." Now that the New York Motion Picture Company gave exclusive territory to a list of exchanges and increased the price from ten to fifteen cents a foot, they could place fifty prints.7
A meeting of independent manufacturers and exhibitors was held in Chicago on 30 March 1912, precipitated in part, rumor said, by the organization of the Mutual Company by Harry Aitken. The minor rumblings inside the Patents Company were nothing compared to the explosions within the Sales Company. The purpose of Aitken's new company was announced as the buying up and consolidating of film exchanges, as General Film had done in the licensed field. "Another consideration that enters into the situation," the World reported, "is the experience of the Bison Company with its big and really high-class Western two-reel features."8
The beginning of trouble in the Sales Company group might be traced back to several raids on Carl Laemmle's IMP Company. In the fall of 1911 Harry Aitken founded Majestic, with Thomas Cochrane, formerly of IMP, as general manager, and Mary Pickford and Owen Moore as star players. Majestic's first release was The Courting of Mary (November 1911). Actually, Cochrane had already left IMP to work briefly for Lubin in Philadelphia before going to Majestic. Harry E. Aitken, unlike many of the leading independent men who were forming the new segments of the industry, was an American-born Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Born in Wisconsin in 1877, he had been an insurance man before starting the Western Film Exchange in Milwaukee. In the fall of 1911 he purchased the Reliance Company and its studio on the former Clara Morris estate in Yonkers. Charles Baumann, former owner of Reliance, explained that he had sold the studio in order to concentrate on the "101" Bison Westerns. Baumann and his partner, Adam Kessel of the New York Motion Picture Company, had picked off IMP's best director, Thomas Ince (the one responsible for those "high-class two-reel Westerns" under the Bison trademark), and the players Ethel Grandin and Ray Smallwood.9
The Sales Company declared that it was entitled to more of a percentage for distributing Majestic's product on the grounds that Majestic was not one of its founding members. Similar rules probably would have been applied to the other companies launched in autumn 1911 and joined to the Sales Company: these included the American branch of the French company Eclair, which after many delays finally started production concurrently with Majestic, in November 1911; and the Crystal Film Company, organized by Ludwig G. B. Erb as president and Joseph A. Golden, formerly with Selig, as director. Aitken, who did not think the increased percentage fair, filed suit against the Sales Company and left the organization, taking with him Majestic, American, and Thanhouser (which had been purchased by Aitken's associate Charles J. Hite). They then founded a new combination, the Film Supply Company of America, which soon added Solax, Great Northern, and Lux.10
Seriously weakened, the Sales Company regrouped as the Universal Film Manufacturing Company in June 1912. Included in this combination were IMP, Crystal, Frontier, Mecca, Victor, Yankee, Champion (Mark Dintenfass), Nestor (David Horsley), Eclair, Powers, Rex, Ambrosio, Itala, and, briefly, the New York Motion Picture Company.11
By the end of 1912 Aitken's chain of Mutual exchanges had grown to about thirty, and he deserted the short-lived Film Supply Company. Mutual would now distribute Majestic, Reliance, Thanhouser, and American. This combination gained great strength by adding the New York Motion Picture Company, which was now out of Universal. In April 1913 Herbert Blaché, gathering together the remnants of the Film Supply, which had "gradually thinned out in the last few weeks," organized the Exclusive Supply Company, with himself as president, Ingvald C. Oes of Great Northern as vice-president, and Harry Raver as secretary and treasurer. It distributed the product of Great Northern, Solax (owned and managed by Blaché's wife, Alice Guy), and the Blaché Company.12
By 1914 Mutual had a total of fifty distributing offices in the United States and Canada as well as several in Europe. These offices handled the product of Thanhouser and Princess of New Rochelle; American of Chicago and Santa Barbara; Reliance of Yonkers, New York City, and Hollywood; Komic of Yonkers; Majestic, Kay-Bee, Broncho, Domino, and Apollo of Los Angeles, and Keystone of Edendale, California. Mutual established links with Continental Feature Film Corporation for distribution of its most important features, which were produced by D. W. Griffith Films, Reliance, and Majestic. This is a typical example of the two-pronged distribution system that developed during the beginnings of the feature film.13
With D. W. Griffith and Thomas Ince producing for Mutual, and the actors and staff they brought with them, Aitken had some of the best talents available to form a strong program. Griffith was supposed to be in charge of all production of Reliance and Majestic features as well as his own. In the days of one- and two-reel production at Biograph, he had shown himself to be a skillful and efficient producer as well as a brilliant director. (Here we speak of the specific role of "producer" as the individual who supervises the work of directors, plans the productions, etc., not in the broader sense used elsewhere.) He kept to the demanding schedule of those days without waste of money or time. He continued a strong production role at Reliance and Majestic and was supposed to be head of production at Triangle-Fine Arts, but his interest in that function apparently lessened as he involved himself more in his own major feature films. While the industry as a whole invested in a specialized system and divided up and limited the functions in the studio, Griffith, preferring his intuitive working methods and full creative control, became more or less an outsider.14
Thomas Ince, on the other hand, began to withdraw from directing to give his talents to production management. By November 1913 Ince was vice-president, manager of Western production, and chief producer, and was setting up new efficiency systems for the studio. The New York Motion Picture Company, it was reported, "even now has a system whereby the director only directs. That is to say, he only supervises the dramatic work of the players. He enters the studio to find his sets all ready, his act players all made up, and his script fit to use. So all he has to do is rehearse and take a scene."15
This was to be the basis of the Hollywood studio system, but Ince should not receive sole credit for introducing it: it was already the tendency among most of the producers of the Patents Company group. Earlier that year it was announced that Lubin was dividing the functions of the scenario editors and the directors, and that directors would have to film the assigned scripts whether they appealed to them or not. "The fact is," noted William Lord Wright, "Lubin is falling into line with Edison and Vitagraph. It has been the policy of these two latter concerns to put a working script up to a director with strict orders to produce it."16
By 1914 Mutual had to its credit some important feature films: The Battle of Gettysburg (June 1913, directed by Thomas Ince, five reels), The Wrath of the Gods (June 1914, directed by Reginald Barker, six reels), Home, Sweet Home (May 1914, directed by D. W. Griffith, six reels), and The Avenging Conscience (August 1914, directed by D. W. Griffith, six reels). Harry Aitken, it would seem, had enough of the cards to survive in competition with Carl Laemmle at Universal.
The first president of Universal was Charles Baumann of the New York Motion Picture Company; Carl Laemmle was the treasurer, and Fred Balshofer was to be the general manager. The stormy beginnings of Universal would be a good subject for another version of Kurosawa's Rashomon, with each participant having a different version to tell. For lack of space, we will look only at David Horsley's account in a letter of May 1914 to Robert Grau, because there is some value in its closeness to the events. David Horsley owned Centaur Films and stayed to become part of Universal; thus we should not expect to find objectivity in his account:
The class of men now in control of the film business were always ready to take a long chance legally and otherwise. They were all individualists who do not work well together. "Lucky" Laemmle, "Foxy" Powers, "Erratic" Swanson, "Suave" Brulatour, "Road-Roller" Baumann and myself were thrown in one basket, and the cover put on. These men are all dynamos accustomed to generating their own power, and did not work well as motors, as they refused to receive their power from an aspiring leader; this brought on friction, including the affable Brulatour to retire, followed by Baumann and Kessel. Laemmle was in Europe, Swanson in California, and Pat Powers and myself sat on the lid in New York. Things went along fairly smoothly until Laemmle and Swanson returned to New York, when began a struggle for control of the Universal Company, with Laemmle on one side and Powers on the other, with the polished Mark Dintenfass, the holder of a small block of stock, also holding the balance of power and fully aware of the fact (quoted in Robert Grau, The Theatre of Science, pp. 39–41).
As Horsley explained it, Laemmle and Swanson purchased Dintenfass' stock, and then Powers sold his holdings, leaving Horsley a hopeless minority. Powers then joined in again with Swanson against Laemmle and both sides quarreled over Horsley's stock. In 1913 Horsley purchased another block of Universal stock, which just happened to be owned by his brother William, who had built a factory with P. A. Powers in Bayonne, New Jersey. This brought Horsley back into a position of power in Universal, but in his view, "Laemmle will eventually win out, because it will be recognized that he is the most capable." Horsley's forecast was accurate. Powers' stock was purchased by Laemmle and Swanson, and Powers was out of Universal by February 1913.17
Another picturesque story of the struggle that began immediately after the forming of Universal in 1912, from the point of view of Fred J. Balshofer, is recounted in Balshofer and Miller's One Reel a Week. The end result in this case was the complete split between the New York Motion Picture Company and Universal. Balshofer gives the details of the struggle when Pat Powers tried to take forcible possession of the New York Motion Picture Company's studios on the grounds they belonged to Universal. In the course of the legal battles that followed, Universal came out with the right to use the "101" Bison brand name, which the New York Motion Picture Company, with the help of Thomas Ince, had endowed with its reputation for high-quality Westerns. The last "101" Bison from the New York Motion Picture Company was The Colonel's Ward (October 1912, directed by Ince). The production unit at New York Motion Picture Company was retained, but the trademark was changed to "Broncho". Later "101" Bisons were all produced by a new group at Universal.18
In 1914 the companies brought together in Universal added up to an impressive empire. IMP, Victor, and the Animated Weekly had studios in New York on Eleventh Avenue, near Universal headquarters; the Crystal studio was in the Bronx at the corner of Park and Wendover; American Eclair was in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and Victor had another studio in Coytesville, New Jersey. At Universal City in Southern California there were eight production companies at work: "101" Bison, Nestor, Rex, Gold Seal, "Universal Ike," Joker, Powers, and Sterling. In March 1914 Universal bought a ranch in the San Fernando Valley and moved there from Hollywood. Universal's Special Features branch began production of four-to-six-reel features. The first one, Absinthe, actually made in late 1913 in Paris by "the European branch of the IMP Company," was produced by Herbert Brenon and featured King Baggott and Leah Baird. (There were also a couple of three-reel features in 1913 under the name of Powers/Universal films.) The most celebrated of these first Universal Special Features was Neptune's Daughter (1914), an extravaganza featuring the swimming celebrity Annette Kellerman in a shockingly form-fitting tank suit. Only a very tiny fragment of this spectacle film survives, preserved by the Soviet state film archive, Gosfilmofond, in Moscow.19
In November 1913, when Jacques Berst of Pathé was testifying in the federal suit against the Trust, he acknowledged three groups of independents: Mutual, Universal, and Film Supply. It was just about at the time of his testimony that Mutual began to replace Film Supply. But these independent firms were no longer the source of the major competition for the Trust. Berst reported that the last twelve months had seen the growth of competition between the licensed program and the special-feature films. New companies and combinations had been formed to produce and distribute these.20
The outlines of the new industry began to take shape in 1913-1914, with the formation of the new feature-production companies that would change the methods of distribution and exhibition. When the feature fever swept through the entertainment world in this period, there were more new companies founded than we can name, but most were short-lived. Some were formed to distribute only one feature film. But this was also the beginning of a limited number of major production companies that would end up with greater control of distribution and exhibition than the Trust companies had ever achieved. That discussion will have to be left for a later volume, but here we will just mention the major companies founded before 1915.
Pat Powers, after leaving Universal, went on to become president of Warner's Features, Inc., organized on 1 August 1913, with Albert Warner as vice-president. However, this company already existed under the same name at least as early as April 1912, with Albert Warner at its head. It was then an importer of features, and by October 1912 it owned a chain of fifteen exchanges, which grew to twenty-three by 1913. The Warners had established the Pittsburg Photoplay Company in 1905, and Albert Warner was well known as a distributor in 1912. Although the company had little success as a producer in these beginning years, some films were made. The first was the three-reel Peril of the Plains, with Dot Farley, produced in St. Louis and released in September 1912. At the end of that year, Warner's took on the distribution of the Gene Gauntier Feature Players productions, and Albert Warner acted as business manager for the newly formed company. In 1913 Warner's Features also distributed the films made by the Helen Gardner Feature Players, Marion Leonard Features, and numerous other small companies. The Warner brothers also had "close connections," it was later said, with the St. Louis Motion Picture Company. This company's first release was A Gypsy's Love, in May 1912, and perhaps not coincidentally, it also featured Dot Farley. In October 1912 Harry Warner went to St. Louis to take care of his brother's agency there.21
Warner's Features of 1913 opened a "new epoch," according to Robert Grau, because they found a way to get their product to the exhibitor, through the system of exchanges they had established. By 1914 Warner's, renamed United Film Service at the end of the year, was releasing three feature films a week, each a three-reeler, an exclusive service that was supposed to restrict the showings to one theater in an area. As Pat Powers observed, "At present, there seems to be a demand for melodramatic and sensational subjects."22
Theatrical producer Daniel Frohman, innocent of the ways of the motion-picture establishment, tells of being sent by the wily Adolph Zukor in 1912 to talk to Thomas
Edison about motion-picture uplift. Frohman may have pointed out that Bernhardt's Camille in two reels and Réjane's Madame Sans-GÊne in three reels were being offered independently on a states rights basis by the French-American Film Company. As a consequence of that visit, Bernhardt's Queen Elizabeth was sold as "the only states-right production licensed by the Motion Picture Patents Company in over a year." That is how the Trust companies assisted in establishing their own competition, the Famous Players Company, in the fall of 1912. In his autobiography, Frohman reports that Zukor had the letters that had been extracted from Edison photographed. Daniel Frohman was managing director of the new company formed with Zukor, the former fur dealer who had become a successful exhibitor and distributor, and Edwin S. Porter, who was their first director.23
In November 1912, Frohman signed up Minnie Maddern Fiske to perform her famous role as Becky Sharp for the camera, but for some reason, perhaps the discovery that Helen Gardner had already played the role in Vitagraph's Vanity Fair not quite a year earlier, this film was not made until 1915, and at that time, it was produced by the Edison Company rather than Famous Players. Mrs. Fiske's first film was Tess of the D'Urbervilles (Famous Players, September 1913). In February 1914 Famous Players signed with Henry W. Savage to film the productions he owned, and theatrical producer Charles Frohman (Daniel's famous brother) joined the fast-growing company the following month. By July the slogan "Famous Players in Famous Plays" had been coined. According to Zukor: "The idea of putting out different grades of pictures we abandoned as impractical; there was not a strong
enough demand for the three-reel pictures with stock companies, and only the big four- and five-part productions proved successful. We have now reached a stage where film plays must be treated as other plays and not as merchandise containing so many feet." Thus began the systematic distribution of thirty pictures a year, a yearly service available to exhibitors. As examples of exhibition practices in an earlier chapter have shown, at this time a theater might contract for a regular short-film service with, say, General Film, and with Famous Players for a feature to show on Sunday night.24
In January 1913 Hobart Bosworth formed Bosworth, Inc., on the basis of an exclusive contract with Jack London to produce features based on his novels. Other productions, including the Lois Weber/Phillips Smalley films, were later added to strengthen this company.25
Jesse Lasky, the vaudeville producer, headed another new company founded at the end of 1913 with feature production in mind. His partners included his brother-in-law, Samuel Goldfish (later known as Samuel Goldwyn), and the playwright and stage manager Cecil B. DeMille. By November of the following year the Lasky Feature Play Company had grown to five directors and cameramen, eighteen "stars," and eighty stock members, traveling by train to Hollywood. When they reached Chicago, Dustin Farnum and Winifred Kingston left the company to go to New Orleans, where Cameo Kirby was in the midst of location shooting. Stars Marguerite Clark (loaned to Lasky for just one film) and Edith Taliaferro were among those continuing on to California.26
In May 1914 came the affiliation of Famous Players, Lasky, and Bosworth, Inc., with distribution to be provided by the newly organized Paramount Pictures Corporation. Paramount's president, W. W. Hodkinson, planned to distribute the features on a percentage basis, which signaled an important change in the distribution system. For the right to distribute, Paramount received 35 percent of the proceeds; in exchange, it provided cash advances for production costs and guaranteed a minimum return to the producer. The Hodkinson system pointed the way to the future organization of the major companies.27
Although William Fox was active and well known in the motion-picture field as exhibitor and distributor from the early days, he was late to get into feature production. In fact, his Box Office Attraction Company, organized in January 1914, was begun with the idea of specializing in the distribution of features, but he then decided to attempt production also. As president of the new company, Fox expressed a firm belief that features would dominate in the future.28
The World Special Films Corporation was announced in November 1913, with E. Mandelbaum, a former exchange man, as president and Lewis J. Selznick (father of David O. Selznick) as general manager. Six months later it was called World Film Corporation and offered a list of foreign films, and by July 1914 World was "a three-million-dollar company," distributing exclusively the photoplay features to be produced from plays owned by the Shuberts, William A. Brady, Charles E. Blaney, Owen Davis, and the Thomas McEnnery Syndicate. More than 160 features were going to be listed in their catalogue, they indicated. In another unusual proceeding, World Film sold stock openly to the general public: there had always been some highly speculative wildcat stock available, but the major production companies all existed as closed corporations.29
The history of one company that was born and died in this period provides a good example of the course of the uplift movement and the changes in distribution patterns. The special place that American Kinemacolor occupied in the industry is signaled by the fact that the reviews in the trade papers were divided into three groups: the licensed, the independent, and the Kinemacolor productions. The New York Dramatic Mirror sometimes carried news of Kinemacolor in its theatrical section instead of in the moving-pictures section. Kinemacolor was important to the cause of uplifting the industry and attracting a middle-class audience. Operating outside the organized distribution system of the movie theaters, it carried special prestige and offered serious competition to the shows of Lyman Howe and Burton Holmes. Like those traveling companies, it played in legitimate theaters, auditoriums, opera houses, and similar high-class venues and was not licensed by the Patents Company.
During the trial of the U.S. government versus the Patents Company in 1913, Kinemacolor's exclusion from the licensed companies was invoked as an example of illegal restraint of trade. William Fox testified that he wanted to be able to show the Kinemacolor films in his licensed theaters but was forbidden by the Patents Company rules. Arthur H. Sawyer, Kinemacolor's general manager, explained that the films were more expensive than ordinary ones, and that the company needed bigger theaters, such as the Keith circuit, one of the big vaudeville chains, which could pay the rental. Kinemacolor was not for the nickel houses. The Keith managers, however, had been told they would lose their licenses if they showed any unlicensed pictures.30
Undoubtedly as a result of the courtroom testimony, the Kinemacolor Company was finally granted a license in August 1913, the only addition that Patents Company had permitted since its founding in 1909, except for the belated acknowledgment of Méliès' American production company in 1909, the exchange of Cines for Gaumont among the foreign films imported by Kleine at the beginning of 1912, and the short-lived Kinetograph distribution company. Moreover, Kinemacolor's agreement said that it could deal with both licensed and independent exhibitors, which was unique. As it turned out, however, the licensing was too late to be of much help to either Kinemacolor or the Patents Company.31
Kinemacolor was the most successful of the pre-Technicolor systems for mass production of color films. The color was "additive," depending on a system of color filters during filming and also during projection, with additional frames (two images for one) projected through alternate color filters. To allow for the extra frames, the film was twice as long as normal and had to be projected at twice the normal speed. Like the Kinemacolor camera, the projector required to show Kinemacolor was quite different from the ordinary one. Massive and motor-driven, it required extra-brilliant illumination for two reasons: the speed of projection and the color filters revolving just in front of the aperture.
To show Kinemacolor, an exhibitor rented a traveling company, with a manager and staff, the special projector, and a program of films. Charles Urban, American by birth but now head of the parent British firm of Kinemacolor, and G. Albert Smith, the inventor, demonstrated the system to the industry in New York on 11 December 1909 in the hope of selling the American rights. According to Terry Ramsaye, Urban negotiated with the members of the Patents Company at that time but without success. It is probable that those working to stabilize and standardize the industry in 1909 decided Kinemacolor would not be very practical for wide use in moving-picture theaters, as indeed time proved.32
The American rights were purchased by two men without previous experience in the film industry, Gilbert H. Aymar and James K. Bowen, both of Allentown, Pennsylvania. They founded American Kinemacolor in April 1910 with the intent of exploiting the device in the big variety theaters rather than in motion-picture houses. Their Allentown plant was to be used for the manufacture of the special apparatus, and they planned to sell territorial rights for exploiting the projection system and the films. They did not produce film themselves, or if they did so, the output was negligible. Indeed, the American Kinemacolor Company got off to a slow start, owing in part, no doubt, to the exploiters' lack of experience in show business. The company began by exhibiting the British productions, consisting of travel and educational films in color and films of important topical events, since the British company made relatively few dramatic films.33
There were technical problems from the outset. The American company tried to adapt ordinary projectors to show their films, but that experiment was not successful. Reporting on private screenings held in Chicago in July 1910, one reviewer complained that a haze hung over Review of Troops by George V, and that all through the show, red and green were dominant, although he did grant that Rebel's Daughter showed lifelike flesh tones.34
The first public exhibition of Kinemacolor in New York took place in January 1911 at the Eden Musee, where it attracted a lot of attention and enjoyed an extended run. But three months later, the World was saying that Kinemacolor had not yet caught on.35
In April came the announcement that J. J. Murdock, "well known in the theatrical and vaudeville world and formerly identified with the first independent movement, the International Company of Chicago," had purchased the company. In reporting Murdock's advent into Kinemacolor, the Mirror optimistically told its readers that "the new Kinemacolor Company appears to be the most important development that has taken place in motion picture affairs since the organization of the Sales Company as a competitor of the Patents Company." According to the account that followed, the new Kinemacolor corporation had some $6 million in backing from "capitalists of both New York and Chicago and a prominent New York trust company," and it had already purchased the Urban-Smith patents for the United States from Charles Urban. With Murdock "placed in full charge," Arthur H. Sawyer was the only executive holdover from the old Allentown operation.36
The "avowed purpose" of the new Kinemacolor enterprise, reported the Mirror, was to "broaden the field of the motion picture," to which end:
It will produce not only colored films but will also produce [sic] black and white films. The process will be rented to manufacturers who affiliate with the corporation but to none outside…. They propose to exhibit only in the best and higher class theatres superior subjects…. The English factory and the American will act in unison and exchange prints…. The special release of the coronation of King George in colors will be handled by a special company (New York Dramatic Mirror, 3 May 1911, p. 34).
Kinemacolor's coronation pictures turned out to be a sellout at the Herald Square Theater in New York that August and added greatly to the prestige of the American company. It was this event that caused Robert Grau to ask, "Is the Two-Dollar-a-Seat Picture Theater in Sight?"37
American Kinemacolor went through endless changes in management, with Sawyer remaining the only constant. During 1911, the company ambitiously undertook an adaptation of The Clansman, a play by Thomas Dixon that had been touring the country for the past six years. Filmed by arrangement with the author and under the supervision of George Brennan, manager of the traveling company, it was produced in the South with members of the original company in the principal roles. The shooting on The Clansman was completed by January 1912, and the ten-reel film (actually the equivalent in running time of five reels because of the double speed of projection) was announced for release as soon as the current big attraction, the British company's Delhi Durbar films, had completed its run. However, since The Clansman never appeared, and there was no explanation given, it must be that the completed footage was not found to be good enough. In December 1912 The Clansman was also announced as one of the projects of the Famous Players Lasky Company, but that version too failed to appear. Frank Woods (the Moving Picture World's "Spectator"), very briefly employed as a Kinemacolor director, later suggested the project to D. W. Griffith, who was to transform it into The Birth of a Nation (1915).38
Despite the fiasco with The Clansman, which must have lost a lot of money for the company, by the fall of 1912 American Kinemacolor declared itself finally ready to set up an ambitious production program. A studio was put into operation in Whitestone, Long Island, but because Kinemacolor's shooting speed of thirty-two pictures a second required more light, only the brightest sunshine would do, and winter darkness soon provided a motive for the company to go to California instead. A site at 4500 Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood (then still referred to as "a suburb of Los Angeles") was leased for ten years. Film pioneer David Miles was the chief director, supervising the work of two others, Frank Woods and Jack Le Saint. Each director was to turn out one film of two reels or more every week. Linda Arvidson, formerly of Biograph (and still Mrs. D. W. Griffith, though separated from her husband by this time), and Mabel Van Buren were hired as players.39
The company was intent on finding a way to expand their market. That same October they advertised a Kinemacolor Film Service with American productions, which could be rented exclusively in small towns. The first release was a two-reel Western, directed by David Miles on his way to California and shown to the press that month under the title East and West. This may have been the same film that, reviewed in the Mirror four months later as Fifty Miles from Tombstone, earned the following scant recognition: "The best that can be said of this picture is that it gives the producer a chance for some wonderful color effects…. But there are many scenes which would tax the credulity of an audience." On 25 November 1912, however, Kinemacolor kept up its prestigious reputation by screening one of its films—about the building of the Panama Canal—for President Taft.40
Early in 1913, the famed but aging beauty Lillian Russell spent two weeks at the Kinemacolor studio in Los Angeles making a physical-culture film called How to Live 100 Years. On 24 February she launched a lecture tour with the film at the Orchestra Hall in Chicago, then went on to New York. At the end of her tour,
ownership of the film reverted to Kinemacolor. Russell was scheduled to follow this venture by playing Lady Teazle in a film version of Sheridan's play The School for Scandal, which was to be directed by David Miles under a contract that called for his exclusive services as her director, but this was apparently never made.41
In April 1913 the company was announcing the development of a new filter that needed much less light in projection and that was being fitted onto every Kinemacolor machine. "Far more important to the picture patron," they claimed, "is the improvement in the blending of the colors. The jarring effect of the reds and greens is done away with, and the colors blend perfectly, giving a remarkably soft effect to the picture and making a wonderful improvement to the eye." Whether the new filter corrected the problem or not, the announcement attests to the earlier problems.42
Six months after the new filter, Kinemacolor began offering a new, cheaper service. Under the former system, it had been necessary to transport the heavy projector to the site of each film showing. Now the projector was to be sold outright at what the company claimed to be a low price. It was adapted for screening black and white as well as color, they said, and exhibitors were supposed to be able to use it as their regular machine and to show Kinemacolor at the same time. But in order for this scheme to succeed, the new projector would have had to be as good as, if not better than, the others that theaters were using, and it was not.43
The technological complications that haunted exhibition must have added to the burden of making films as well. Indeed, none of the directors remained at Kinemacolor any length of time; Frank Woods, for example, went over to IMP in April. According to Motography's Hand Book and Film Record, between 1 October 1912 and 30 September 1913, Kinemacolor released only twelve multireel dramas, eight multireel comedies, and thirteen films classed as educational, scenic, and topical, most of them about one reel or less (and at least some of them British productions). A few other Kinemacolor releases reviewed in the trade periodicals in the early months of 1913 are not listed there, but in any event, it is clear that production was too small to support the company without the addition of the British films. By June 1913 the Los Angeles studio was closed, permanently, it was said, and the staff was reported to be looking for other jobs. At the end of that year, theatrical managers Cohan and Harris bought American Kinemacolor with the intention of producing films of the plays they owned, for screening in their own theaters in both black and white and Kinemacolor.44
The Urban patents ran out in 1914, and American Kinemacolor did not last much longer. In an article called "Demise of Kinemacolor: Technological, Legal, Economic, and Aesthetic Problems in Early Color History," Gorham Kindem assigns blame to a combination of all the items listed in his title. My opinion is that the largest factor in Kinemacolor's failure was technological. If, as it seems, the projection equipment could not be made practical for the many ordinary moving-picture theaters, the market was not big enough to justify the high cost of production. In his courtroom testimony, Sawyer claimed that Kinemacolor felt limited in output and could not expand because the market was not broad enough. At that time, early in 1913, he admitted that Kinemacolor had played in very few of the smaller cities. Among other factors contributing to its demise were the incredible number of changes of management Kinemacolor underwent during its brief history, and the company's failure to lease its technical facilities to other producers, as Technicolor was to do later on.45
By 1914, America's film exports were becoming important to the national economy. The year ending 30 June 1912 was the first for which the U.S. consular reports included statistics relating to the motion-picture industry. That year, over fourteen million feet of positive film were imported, while eighty million feet were exported. During the period ending March 1914, motion-picture exports were four times those of the same nine-month period in 1912. When war started in Europe in 1914, it abruptly cut off a substantial part of this export market from those companies now heavily dependent on it (although it also led to the development of the Latin American riarket as compensation for this loss). European exchanges and theaters closed, at least temporarily, when the adult males who had operated them marched off to war. This was an economic blow for Edison, Lubin, and Vitagraph, and especially for Kleine, with his big new studio under construction in Italy. It may also have been one of the strongest factors in bringing about the demise of some of the licensed companies, coming as it did in the midst of the government's action to disband them. Among the independents, the Mutual Company also had important European markets.46
By 1914 the center for European distribution of American films was London, and most of the established companies maintained offices there. The newest feature-film production companies and combines, however, had not yet established a dependence on the European market, except those that needed Europe as a source for their film supply. On the whole, they did not suffer as big a blow, and they were ready to fill a gap left when fewer foreign feature films were available. Even before the war broke out, a fall-off in European feature-film production was noticed, giving support to the conservatives who believed that the feature film was a passing craze of 1913.47